Power to the crafts

What happens when craftivism meets spirituality?

Browsing and navigating my way through the colourful and diverse independent zines stalls showcased at the annual "Publish and Be Damned" event, I find myself drawn to a stall draped in handmade patchwork bunting. The stall is being manned by three women - one is wearing a huge knitted blue jumper with a grinning cat on it, one is in a studded denim jacket, and one is wearing a floral print hijab – and they are selling a small handcrafted zine called OOMK – One of My Kind. In tough economic circumstances, it’s inspirational enough that people are setting up very niche creative publications that they care about passionately, but these women are the only visibly ones from an ethnic minority in the hall - and happen to be muslim illustrators too.

Sofia Niazi, who is of Pakistani origin, tells me that she feels strongly about visual communication and that she founded the zine, alongside Rose Nordin and Sabba Khan, as she felt there was a noticeable gap in the market. “Articulating yourself visually is something that has been lacking in the muslim community,” she explains, “sometimes the arts isn’t encouraged, even though it influences us so much in the way we understand things and join the dots, and there aren't many muslims going to art schools. It’s frustrating when your voice isn’t heard, so we thought we’d do something about it, and create a friendly space where alternative talent can be appreciated and showcased.”

The zine has a folksy feel and is a highly eclectic visual feast, reflecting their mixed and interweaving heritage, with the aim to celebrate “the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women.” I’m struck by the fact that it is inclusive, with 25 women contributors – writers and artists – all from different backgrounds, dipping into both ethereal and political realms in the issues they tackle. The theme of this issue is fabric, and explores the appreciation and struggle women have with material. Instead of finding glamorous Hollywood actresses that you’ll find in glossy magazines, there is a striking illustrated tribute to Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen as she walked to school. Artist Ceri May writes about expression using wool and felt, there is a sketch of human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, and a cut out poster of harem pants with the caption: “Elastic revolution. Escape the fat race. One size fits all.”

Underpinning this publication is the ethos of “craftivism”. I had never heard of this before, but it is a concept coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer, and she explains that it is a term that defines the intersection of “craft” and “activism”. It’s a movement that defies second-wave feminists by reclaiming traditionally feminised and domestic activities – sewing and knitting - that have historically been marginalised and undervalued, which is turned on its head and used instead as a means to make a stand and raise awareness of a cause. The juxtaposition of the comfort of craft with a bold political image is powerful, and far more accessible, and arguably, more effective than any political pamphlet could be. The artist Hannah Habibi writes in her essay in the magazine how she uses “stictching as a weapon of resistance” against gender constraints.

Of course, this isn’t something new. You can always spot a highly creative handmade banner at a demonstration, which guarantees a smile. Barbara Kruger in the 70s and 80s crocheted, sewed, painted and most famously juxtaposed photograph montages with bold text to criticise sexism and challenge concepts of power. Yet sometimes, there is the perception that art is exclusive and ethnocentric. The perception that that there is a monopoly over creative expression, or the negative notion that channeling your voice through art is worthless, need to be broken. Which is why I find publications like OOMK and projects by young women like Sofia, Rose and Sabba particularly exciting, and hopefully small efforts like this will inspire and make art more accessible and open to new audiences.  

Rose Nordin sells copies of the inaugural issue of OOMK (Photo: Aisha Gani)
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge